If a salad you were to punch you in the face with freshness, it would undoubtedly be Fattoush.
What does that even mean? I don’t know really, it’s just the most visceral explanation I got for something so ridiculously refreshing that it feels like your insides just took a shower in barely-melted icebergs.
In my opinion, this is “the” summer salad. Showcasing the season’s best produce, its high-water-content veggies get their cool on, while the herbs brighten things up with breezy greenness. Top it all off with a magical sprinkling of za’atar and you got yourself one crazy-clean flavoured dish that puts your taste buds on the next train to fresh town.
Although it is a well-known Lebanese dish, I actually ate my first plate of this tasty delight in Los Angeles, of all places. My friends and I often patronized our off-the-cool-map restaurant in a strip mall because the food was really, really delicious (but also because we could all find something on the menu to suit us – not always the easiest thing!). The fattoush salad serendipitously arrived at our table one day (I can’t even remember ordering it) and lo and behold, I got a taste of the light. What is this incredible stuff?! So lemon-y. So herbalicious. So clean and cool and collectively crisp! And sprinkled with some very tangy red stuff that I later learned was sumac – pure love I tells ya. The whole thing is a plate of genius.
Fattoush salad typically combines summer veggies, a whack-load of fresh herbs, fried pita bread, and za’atar – a sesame and sumac-based topping that gives fattoush its distinctive zingy flavour. As a dish it is totally fresh and satisfying, perfect for a light, summer afternoon lunch, but can easily be made into a meal with the addition of chickpeas or beans, and maybe a few olives thrown in for good measure. I would liken fattoush to Greek salad, but the thing that really sets it apart is the za’atar – almost like a magical genie-in-a-bottle!
Za’atar – Flavour Genie in a Bottle!
For some reason, all I can think about when I hear the word Za’atar is the rapping genie Shaquille O’Neil played in the film Kazaam (I never saw this movie, I promise). But not unlike Shaq, this genie totally brings the flavour, minus the bad rhymes.
Za’atar is based on sumac (rhus coriaria), a spice that comes from the berries of a wild bush, which grows in the wilds of Mediterranean, especially in regions like southern Italy, Sicily and parts of the Middle East, notably in Iran. Sumac is an essential ingredient in Arabic cooking, as preferred to lemon for sourness and astringency. Not to be confused with its relative poison ivy (rhus toxicondendron) this variety is non-poisonous and has a dark red burgundy color. When the berry is dried and ground to powder, it has a nutty texture and a tart, sour lemon-y taste. This is how you will see it in stores, in its ground form with a deep reddish brown colour.
You can purchase sumac at most ethnic grocers and spice shops.
Aside from just being a tasty treat, sumac has many delightful health benefits. For example, the deep pigments found in the berries are due to the high concentration of anthocyanins, those are the very special compounds, which exhibit antioxidant action. Anthocyanins help to decrease the risk of heart disease and cancer. They may also aid in the prevention of macular degeneration by protecting the eyes from free radical damage, increasing circulation and stabilizing collagen structures (which hold tissues together). You can also find anthocyanins in foods such as blackberries, blueberries, black rice, grapes, and açaí.
Sumac herb can also help in the treatment of common digestive disorders, including stomach upset, acid reflux, constipation, feverish symptoms, and irregular bowel movements. It is believed to contain both antimicrobial and antioxidant effects.
As I mentioned earlier, fattoush typically includes a generous topping of deep-fried pita bread, of which I will pass, thanks. My version uses raw flax crackers simply crumbled up to add some crunch and texture. This gets the job done, and in a far healthier way. You could also use whole grain flatbread or crackers, or simply toast up a pita and skip the oxidized fats. Yay!
Also important to note – the herbs in this salad are not simply a garnish. As you can see from the amounts I’ve called for, they are in fact an integral ingredient to the traditional fattoush. Think of the herbs as you would lettuce, and remember that they too boost this salad’s nutrition profile, big time.
2 medium cucumbers, with skin
3 cups chopped tomatoes (I used a combination of cherry, plum, and grape tomatoes)
2 red bell peppers
1 large red onion
3 green onions
1 cup chopped flat-leaf parsley
¾ cup chopped mint
raw flax crackers, flatbread, or toasted pita
1. Wash, prepare, and chop all veggies into bite-sized pieces. Wash, spin-dry herbs and chop. Place in a large bowl.
2. Pour dressing over salad, stir, and let stand for at least 30 minutes at room temperature to allow the flavours to meld.
3. Right before serving, sprinkle generously with za’atar, crumble raw flax crackers and fold into salad. Enjoy.
Fattoush Salad Dressing
¼ cup extra virgin cold-pressed olive oil
¼ cup freshly squeezed lemon juice
zest of 1 lemon (organic, un-waxed if possible!)
1 tsp. raw liquid honey or maple syrup
2 – 4 cloves garlic, minced
a couple pinches of sea salt
a pinch of black pepper
1. Put all ingredients in a jar with a light-fitting lid and shake.
You can make a raw version of this amazing topping by using raw sesame seeds. But to really bring out the awesome nutty flavour in these little guys, lightly toast the sesame seeds in a dry skillet over medium-high heat until they start to pop. Remove from heat and let cool.
¼ cup sesame seeds (raw or toasted)
¼ cup sumac
2 Tbsp. dried thyme
1 Tbsp. dried oregano
(This is a good “starter amount”, but feel free to double, triple, quadruple the recipe if you want more za’atar!)
1. Combine all ingredients in a bowl.
2. Funnel into a glass jar and store in a cool, dark place.
After making my own za’atar, I’ve come to regard it as a real flavour booster for just about any dish! My favorite so far is sprinkling it on an avocado sandwich, but it’s also lovely with eggs, dashed on hummus, steamed brown rice with veggies, even on a savory breakfast porridge – I kid you not.
Throw it on your next meal and see how za’atar wakes it up! Kazaam!